Nov 30, 2017

Learning To Read pt 2 - Improving Your Writing

Poetry, like all writing, is the message. Every poem has one. From the author to the reader. From reader to listener. And often that message is simple, though sometimes it is obscured in difficult layers of representation. *(from part 1)

Part 2

The Message is Lost

I'm not one to tell people what is or isn't poetry. I think that is a pointless conversation. I'm also hesitant to say things are right or wrong, or good or bad. I tend to think of poems as being in-progress or finished.

It's also worth a note that Whitman's Leaves of Grass was in-progress from 1855-1892 as a published work. So it's OK to improve and change. Things don't have to be so final. 

Another note: my observations aren't meant as a law, but more of a guide for something that I see all the time with poetry, 
especially on Instagram.

I read a lot of poems on my feed. Some really move me, some make me laugh. A lot fall into this beautifully-confusing category. So many poems have great stories and ideas, but collapse in on themselves. 

They start about subject A then move to B then so on and so on until we are at F and  never have come back to any of the earlier points. Then its over.

It becomes hard to keep them all straight, but the lines feel good and there is something of a story there. Something the author wanted to say. I can read the author's excitement. Their passion. They're right on the cusp of having a polished idea in their poem, but somewhere between the feeling and the page, the message was lost. 

The poem doesn't hold the burn. 

And when I'm done reading the piece, I don't feel like I understood anything clearly. Maybe I could chalk it up to poetry being abstract or vague... poetry can be. But there is a big difference between an abstract concept, and the complete lack of one. 

This is something we develop as readers.

As a reader it is easy to make a judgement and say I liked that, this made sense, this was weird, or good, or sexy, or terrible... but as Writers, I see that judgement disappear.

I think because it is easy to understand ourselves, and it is hard to know how others will read our words. But we need that readers mind in order to write our messages clearer.

So lets start again small.

Instead of worrying about a big idea. Start with a simple one. Some people say start with a title, but I have trouble with that honestly. I think the point is to start with a concept. Something that you can return to. Something that can ground a poem into a setting, or character, or action. This is where my Zen style thinking takes over for me. Good or bad. 

Recently I wrote a poem called Coffee. 


the taste was bitter - she looked at me as if to say 
t'know more things are different
t'know more things have changed
t'know of the many things we lost 

like the slow drip
in the cold morning

unaccounted, unrecorded, unappreciated
unable to recall just one

the taste was bitter -
and she didn't have to say

Whether or not you think it is great, I don't care, but it demonstrates one of my favorite things about writing poetry. Evolving a simple idea into an emotion, and then into an experience. 

I wrote it with the idea of coffee in the morning. Home brewed. It was a simple setting. Once I arrived on the line, the taste was bitter. I felt I had an emotional hook. The flavor for the coffee became the symbol for the relationship between the narrator and this second person.

It was tempting for me to want to evolve that idea more. To let it run away, but I try to control myself to some degree. To talk about the relationship. Why it has become bitter. Where it started. What could happen next, but there has to be a point to what is being said, or else the message will be lost. 

This is the part I think is subjective 
and where real writing craftsmanship takes over.

To me it was enough to know that the bitterness had overwhelmed the relationship. To know that the characters were not on talking terms, notice the lack of dialogue, combined with the repeating lines - she didn't have to say. It was enough of a story to focus on the drink. The slow, drip of the machine, the cold, wordless interaction fusing with the taste of bad coffee. The story became self-contained but not dull; there was a story between the lines.

And I built that taste for enough/not enough through reading. Relating my poem to all the things I liked as a reader. That is my barometer. Not what you think. Not what magazines think. Not what teachers or lovers or friends think. But my taste from reading.

For example, I am a big fan of returning to the opening line to close off a poem. It's a simple technique, not to be over-done, but it can help close off the loop of a narrative; reinforce the main concept of the bitter taste, and the establish the importance of the relationship to the reader. That is, after all, the one thing I want a reader to take away from this piece.

If I had ended with the line, unable to recall just one, the last image of the poem would be the slow drip of the machine. Which is cool and poetic in its own way, but betrays the conceit of the poem. 

Coffee is not about the machine or even the coffee being made. It is about the people drinking it, and their inability to connect during a very communal activity.

Having a cup of coffee and talking about the day is a near Universal staple of the human experience. We could simplify it even more to say, talking over a drink be it alcohol, tea, water, soda, or coffee is so human it is easy to forget that it is a thing we choose to do in order to help us connect with each other.

The utter failure in this relationship to move in to normal conversation means they are so infused with the bitterness, that there is nothing left. Nothing to talk about. Nothing to exchange but the bitter looks. 

And they both know.

So maybe you didn't get all that from my poem the first time. Maybe you think it is not a poem, cause it doesn't rhyme or have an identifiable structure that can easily be categorized as a poem. Or maybe you think it sucks. Honestly I don't care.

The words I wrote have a deliberate message I am creating through 

Word Choice
Social Constructs

and even though I have used a lot of poetic tools, those individual terms would mean nothing if the poem meant nothing. 

If it didn't add up to the communication experience between writing and the reader. If it didn't have a story behind the poem.

So think about this: What do you want the reader to understand and take away from your poem? What is the essential idea? Make it small. Make it focused. And see if that makes a difference in your writing.

Third Note: This completely applies to most types of writing in general. Either Song. Novel. Essay. There should be some clear idea in any writing that needs to be said. With out that essence, why should anyone read it?

Much love


ps. as always like, share, subscribe and if you want to talk you can reach me on this blog, youtube, facebook and twitter. Also my new website ReneTheWriter.

pps. Let me know if you liked this and I can do more.

Nov 8, 2017

Learning To Read. Pt 1

You probably know by now that I love to read poetry. It's the reason I got into writing in the first place. 

And in the short time I've been reading publicly, I've been lucky enough to find so much encouragement (btw thank you for all the kind words. they mean a lot to me). It's become such a big part of my life, that I decided to talk about how I learned to read and hopefully get more people to try.

Quiet a few years ago, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company visited my school and read On The Eve of St. Agnes.To tell you that it was an important moment for me would be an understatement. It changed how I wrote, how I read, how I understood poetry. 

And while I am nowhere near on that level, I am better for what I learned from that experience. More about that specific reading later but here are some things that have stuck with me since then.

Part 1

Poetry People and Poetry Is The Message

Let's start with an uninspired, blanket observation: poetry isn't for everyone. And while that's true for almost anything, I have found such a hot or cold reaction to Poetry that I can't help but try and theorize why something I love so much, can be so hated as well. So I'll move to my second cliche and move to the beginning of these experiences.

Most of the time, when people find out that I love poems, I'm met on some scale between confusion, annoyance, distaste, or anger.


                 Vary rarely.

I meet someone who enjoys poetry too. 

It's not impossible. But I find those encounters to be outliers. And of those few encounters it's even harder to find someone who enjoys the same kind of poetry I do. Maybe this is do to my geography, or the small circles I keep, and maybe this would all be solved if I just got out more?... but this has been my experience.

So younger me, often kept poetry as a solitary subject. Something not to bring in to conversations with my friends. The times I remember best, ditching class, to have time alone in a corner of a library, or in my room, or on the university lawn, or hiding in the front seat of my car with the windows down. Quietly absorbing every line. Taking in the page as a secret passed thru history just for me. And I was fine with that. In fact it was exactly what I wanted. A way to enjoy my lonerism.

After all, poetry wasn't about making friends. 

Still isn't. 

Poetry is something I do for me. I read and write cause I want to. It's my desire that is it's own reward. There's no monetary value. No good job or high five. No reason other than a desire to read and write. I can share a moment with a writer's thoughts, see if they speak to me, if I like it or not or if I want even want that message in my life. And everything about Poetry, hinges on me. And while yes, sometimes it's another author who wrote the piece, the conversation is strictly internal. They were merely the fuel for my own imagination. I hold the conversation. I dictate how it ends. 

And I imagine this true for you, if you are a poetry person.

Maybe that's where the disconnect occurs? Maybe some people don't understand why they should put so much work or thought into a poem when it takes so much effort to understand and they receive no tangible reward. Poetry is slow. Its practice requires calming that internal itch for fast and easy and waiting for a longer, personal reward that may not reveal its purpose until years down, when a reader can recall a succinct and poignant line.

And while poetry is personal, at its origin, it's meant to be communal. Meant to be spread and shared. That was a big lesson for me to learn from the Shakespearean Actor and my wonderful Romance Professor. What's the point of writing, of publishing, if not to spread out like a virus thru time, infecting futures with the strange ramblings of your mind? 

Poetry, like all writing, is the message. Every poem has one. From the author to the reader. From reader to listener. And often that message is simple, though sometimes it is obscured in difficult layers of representation. *(More on this later)

That communication is the most important part of reading. Even if you're alone in your room, on a recording, in bed with a lover, or on a stage in front of a room full of people, or live on Instagram, the point is to uncover the message. 

Bring it out. 

Give it warmth. 

Slowly make it live. 

Only the reader can do that.

A good reading should help the message emerge. A great reading should bring the author's voice off the page and into our reality. Into the moment.

Sometimes it takes a lot of time and re-readings to ever get to a comfortable place and say - I know this poem well enough to read it.

I hear a lot of people read unconfidently. And this is probably because they aren't precisely sure what they are saying. 

So take time. 

I never read aloud the first time. And I never perform without many, many re-readings. I imagine this was equally true for the Shakespearean Actor who read at my University.

Read unfiltered, then Re-Read asking lots of questions like:

What did the author mean? What is actually being said here? What should the reader get from this? Why is the poem divided up the way it is? Are the rhymes and rhythms supposed to be emphasized or is it just a background mood? What is the tone of this poem? Etc.

There are a million questions and even more answers, but with every answer you find (different readers will and should find different answers) you should get closer to understanding your message.

 This is the work of reading. It's not easy. 

And the reward... that's even harder to define. 

Maybe here we can revisit this Love/Hate problem. 

Why work so hard for words? Why go slowly over an idea, again and again? Why obsess over someone else's thoughts? If you see no value in it, it is the equivalent of eating a chunk of rubber tire. Hard. Distasteful. Unrewarding. It's easy to understand why someone would hate the thought of it. Or think it strange that other people enjoy it.

I think that's the inherited attitude of our High School understanding of Poetry. And for that, I won't blame them.

But if like me, you are a Poetry Person, you know there are universes of ideas to escape to. Dreams to make. Experiences to feel. Each one has made my life so much deeper. Has taught me to appreciate others. To Think. To Feel. To Love. To be cautious of the words I use. To be mindful of my form. To be something more than I could be without Poetry. 


So I challenge you to find a poem, record yourself reading it the first time, then read it over until you find some new insight into the meaning, and record it again. Hear the change that comes with understanding.

Much love


ps. as always like, share, subscribe and if you want to talk you can reach me on this blog, youtube, facebook and twitter. Also my new website ReneTheWriter.

pps. Let me know if you liked this and I can do more.